The Pan Celtic Race 2019

Even though the ferry crossing from Cairnryan to Befast is only a couple of hours long, I happily paid 26 quid for a cabin just for a shower and a chance to lie down on something comfortable. While the idea of riding an extremely-hilly 1470 miles over the course of a week didn’t particularly faze me – it’s surprising what the human body can withstand when there is literally nothing else to do but ride and eat – if I’m being completely honest the past 3 days of the Scottish leg of the Pan Celtic race had been tougher than I was probably expecting….

It all started in Inverness and headed north into a strong headwind. Many wills to live were almost lost. After that, the north and west coasts of Scotland were ridden and while I was happy with my pace, it was obvious that none of this was going to be even slightly flat and/or easy. A couple of hours trying to sleep on a 2 seater sofa at the Ullapool checkpoint while everyone in the room brought their loudest and weirdest snores was welcome respite after 20-or-so hours of solid riding and then the eating/riding routine started again.

(photo: Brian McLeod)

There’s very little food to be found in the Highlands, especially on a Sunday so I think I’d been riding for 28 hours on a handful of gels and a bag of mixed nuts. Some free samples of energy drink were included in the race goody bag and they probably saved my bacon (Active Root – actually very nice indeed, folks) but once the shops and cafes opened on Monday many of them received a sweaty, stinky, clip-clippety-clop visit.

Sometimes, the main spectacle was bacon and sausage rolls being ordered and consumed in seconds right in front of the startled shop lady before another was ordered. Crumbs were probably spat.

Eat food and eat it fast. Make it fatty and high in, well, pretty-much everything and then get the hell outta there.

I spent a solid 4 hours sleeping in a shed just outside Fort William after another 22 hours of the calorie consumption/energy expenditure/calorie consumption sphere of existence and set off just as it started to rain. I’d set off a little bit too early, thinking that the McDonald’s in Fort William opened earlier than 7am but it didn’t so I rode away, muttering naughty words.

Eventually I arrived at a petrol station and ignoring the woman’s moaning that the place wasn’t open for another 10 minutes, proceeded to eat a pork pie, a coronation chicken baguette and a Mattesons smoked pork sausage, washed down with a coffee and a can of Irn Bru. By the time I’d finished she was ready to take some money off me so I bought a couple of extras for the road (another smoked sausage and a ham butty, in case you’re interested) and got cracking.

Invariably I’d either meet another PCR rider just leaving a petrol station or café and I’d be leaving just as another arrived – I assume this routine went on for a week or so, or at least until the food ran out.

The world’s slowest case of panic-buying, ever.

It had been raining all day. It was ok for the first few hours, but as the day wore on (apparently there had been an amber weather warning) it started to wear quite thin. The scenery was still absolutely mind-blowing in places but to be honest my arse was starting to hurt and I knew that my soaking wet shorts were going to be my downfall unless I took action…..

…the problem was that no matter how much chamois cream I was applying, being out in heavy rain for that amount of time was just washing it away. I was stopping every couple of hours but by the time I’d ridden past Loch Lomond, through the shitty, muddly cycle paths of Glasgow and down into Ayrshire it was dark, it was still raining and my seatpost had decided it was going to fall to bits (3 zipties to the rescue). By now I was struggling to grip anything with my hands and changing gear was becoming impossible. I’d altered the saddle angle a few hours ago and now there was more pressure on my arms, wrists and hands.

I was getting into bother but I was almost at Cairnryan.

Ignoring the temptation to just ride back to my house when the route came within 4 miles of it, I arrived at the port just 2 hours before the ferry left for Belfast, 3 days and 670-something miles since the start, just as the sun was rising (not that you could see the sun).

Following a less-than-restful wait to board the boat with my head resting on a crisp vending machine I got to my £26 cabin. Bliss.

I was banking on this amazing 2 hour sleep miraculously fixing my various injuries and issues.

Unsurprisingly, 2 hours sleep is nowhere near enough time to resolve a nerve-damaged hand and a backside that won’t allow me to sit on a bicycle saddle. I rolled down the ramp onto Irish soil anyway and immediately looked for somewhere to stop.

Like an oasis in the desert, a branch of Greggs loomed into view. I spent a large amount of cash in there and tore into my lukewarm haul of pastry on the step outside.

I was losing my belief in getting much further and I weighed up what my next move should be. Just get straight back on the ferry? Give it an hour? Eat another steak slice? Kick the crap out of the car park bin? Cry?

I sat there for as long as I could before the staff in the shop started tutting and my phone got a few text messages from people asking why my dot wasn’t moving.

I set off back on the route. I couldn’t sit down. I stopped a couple of times to change gear with two hands and give myself a break from the pain.

I thought about what lay ahead and thought about the where the other PCR riders who travelled on the same ferry would be, now I’ve let them have a 2 hour gap.

I thought about the ferries, trains, shops and (most importantly) my friends Geoff and Maragaret in Belfast as opposed to the lack of pretty-much anything on the route once I’d left the city. I decided to stay in Belfast where I had some infrastructure and scratch (AKA drop out, jib, cry off, pack it in).

Many people drove and walked past a dejected cyclist sat in a bus shelter just north of Belfast city centre before Geoff rang and gave me directions to his house. Maragaret was waiting with food and a change of clothes.

I spent a few hours with them, visited their local pub then went home on the night ferry, wearing Geoff’s jeans and t shirt.

I’ll be back at some point to finish off the job, and maybe I’ll line up again next year, better-prepared and perhaps slightly wiser. Maybe with longer than a week off work…

Some truly amazing films and details of the Pan Celtic race can be found on their website here

Thanks to Matt, Toby, Rebecca and Pete and all who helped organise this incredible race.